2019 saw the release of my debut novel, and it was the year I read only about half the books I usually get through in a year—I spent a lot of time sitting and staring in silence, filled with various forms of anxiety, and maybe talking out loud to myself.
Nevertheless, I began the year with The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwartz-Bart, and several things about this book are still haunting me. Same for Savage Conversations by LeAnne Howe, which is possible to read in one sitting.
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, and wondered why nobody had ever recommended this book to me before. It would have brought me much joy and relief during those G.W. Bush years. (Also, does Whitehead have an obsession with things that run on tracks? Someone please ask him for me!)
Found myself reading Miriam Toews’s Women Talking in early June, during the same days the book takes place, and went through a roller coaster of emotions in a way I hadn’t experienced with a book in so long—I know other people have said this book is a masterpiece, and I’ll add my name to that list.
I read Normal People, and enjoyed it, but had to really think about which books I’d read this past year to remember anything about it.
Buy Stephanie Goehring’s chapbook From the Water [Inaudible], it will put you in a trance.
Met some fellow debut novelists in the book circuit, and it felt great genuinely loving all their books: Stay and Fight by Madeline ffitch has some of those most memorable characters in recent fiction; Reinhardt’s Garden by Mark Haber is a coked-up run through the jungle; Mesha Maren’s Sugar Run is a book I’m thinking about a lot these days, too.
Right now, I’m halfway through Wake, Siren by Nina MacLaughlin, and it’s taking my breath away in every single story—excited to start I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg, which is out next year. Saved Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi for this winter season—somehow reading it in the Texas heat seemed wrong.
I know there are more books, but that’s all I can think of for now.
Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Nina MacLaughlin, JP Gritton, Saskia Hamilton, Stephen Dunn, and more—that are publishing this week.
Wake, Siren: Ovid Resung by Nina MacLaughlin
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Wake, Siren: “MacLaughlin, whose debut book was the carpentry memoir Hammerhead, heads in a vastly different direction with this collection of myths recast for the #MeToo era. In more than 30 short stories, nymphs and human women are allowed to tell their own stories, many of which depict gods and heroes as more dangerous than the lascivious and mischievous rogues they’ve often been portrayed as. These settings are largely unmoored from traditional chronology, borrowing freely from both classical tropes and contemporary popular culture, and some—such as one where incestuous Myrrha confesses everything to her therapist, or another in which the cyclops Polyphemus is Galatea’s cyberstalker—are inventive in form. There is nevertheless a certain sameness to many of the stories, perhaps unavoidable in such a project, but MacLaughlin largely succeeds in varying the recurrent themes of sexual violence and women’s subsequent rage and inevitable transformations, largely imposed by gods to ensure women’s silence. The emotional heart of the collection arrives when the horrific story of Proche and Philomela is immediately followed by Baucis’s sensually and emotionally satisfying tale of a long, love-filled marriage. In the latter story, the narrator states that ‘Not all stories are sad,’ a much-needed reminder at this point in the collection. MacLaughlin skillfully elevates what could have been merely a writerly exercise, instead composing a chorus of women’s justifiable rage echoing down through the millennia.”
The Confession Club by Elizabeth Berg
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Confession Club: “Berg (The Story of Arthur Truluv) returns to Mason, Mo., for this feel-good testament to taking risks, falling in love, and reinvention. Here, the focus is on the irrepressible members of a monthly club of eight women ranging in age from 20s to 80s, who bare their fibs, sins, and shame. ‘They knew they were mostly silly,’ Berg writes. ‘They enjoyed being silly, because sometimes you just needed to take a load off.’ The heart of this story belongs to cooking school teacher Iris, who’s ‘coming into my fifties,’ divorced and childless when she falls in love with John, 66, a homeless Vietnam vet still haunted by the war and the wife and child he left behind. Berg effortlessly wraps her arms around this busy universe of quirky characters with heartbreaking secrets and unflagging faith. ‘We forget how ready people are to help,’ 47-year-old “stout and practical” club member Toots says, adding: ‘To say those words to yourself or another, ‘I forgive you’? Most powerful words in the world.’ Readers new to Berg’s Mason will be dazzled by this bright and fascinating story, and fans will be cheering for the next volume set there.”
Labyrinth by Burhan Sönmez (translated by Umit Hussein)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Labyrinth: “Sönmez’s latest, following Istanbul, Istanbul, is a cerebral philosophical meditation on memory and what it means to live without it. Boratin Bey is a 28-year-old blues singer living in Istanbul, or at least that is what he has been told. After jumping from the Bosphorus Bridge in an apparent suicide attempt, the musician has experienced complete amnesia: ‘He raises his eyes and looks at his face. The face he met a week ago. It’s that new. Hello stranger, he says.’ His friend and bandmate Bek helps him relearn who he is, or was, answering basic questions such as ‘what sort of person was I, what did I look like?’ Boratin wanders unfamiliar streets, kisses a woman he is told he knows, and attends the funeral of someone who he is told was a friend, Zafir—who, as Boratin describes it, ‘got left behind in the past and disappeared there.’ Indeed, the central question of the novel is if the loss of one’s past is a loss of selfhood or a liberation. As another patient says to him, ‘Maybe you are unfortunate to still be alive and fortunate to have lost your memory.’ Both poetic and an existential novel of ideas, Sönmez’s prose, in Hussein’s translation, is accessible and profound, bringing to mind Albert Camus and Patrick Modiano. While Boratin must learn to find fulfilment with ‘a blank memory,’ this is a book that will undoubtedly linger in a reader’s mind.”
Wyoming by JP Gritton
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Wyoming: “In a voice rough as a chainsaw blade and Midwestern as green bean casserole, debut author Gritton chronicles the trip-to-hell-and-back life of the troubled Shelley Cooper. After a fire ravages the mountains in the vicinity of Montgrand, Colo., and most of the construction work dries up, Shelley steals an air compressor from his boss and loses his job. He needs money, same as his weed-growing older brother, Clayton, and his sister, May, who is married to Shelley’s best friend Mike. Clayton’s wife, Nancy, has the same shaking sickness her mother had, and May and Mike’s little daughter, Layla, has cancer: in short, these are folks ‘whose bad luck run longer than an interstate.’ Something deep and unnameable bothers Shelley; he cares an awful lot about Mike, though his discontent mostly seems like a mean streak to others. When Clay starts coming up with mystery money, Shelley becomes suspicious; his brother already spent five years in prison for dealing weed, and Shelley blames this calamity for their mother’s death. Nevertheless, he agrees to deliver Clay’s latest batch of marijuana to Houston, and what happens on this trip is both violently tragic and a twisted sort of redemption. Pitch perfect cadences sing from the mouths of Gritton’s characters, and the author performs skilled loop-de-loops in and out of Shelley’s memories. This auspicious debut marks Gritton as a storyteller to watch.”
The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979 edited by Saskia Hamilton
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Dolphin Letters: “The push and pull of love and anger course through this riveting collection of correspondence between onetime literary power couple Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick. Beginning soon after Lowell’s move to England, without Hardwick, to teach, the book then tracks her discovery of his infidelity, their 1972 divorce, and his 1973 publication of The Dolphin, a sonnet sequence drawing extensively on her letters to him. It then covers the aftermath, which saw Hardwick deeply hurt, and their friends (including Elizabeth Bishop, Mary McCarthy, and Adrienne Rich) rallying around her. Though Lowell is perhaps better known, Hardwick emerges as the collection’s central figure. Her voice resonates more deeply, with frustrated but loving concern for Lowell—who struggled with manic-depressive disorder—and with protectiveness toward their daughter, Harriet. Despite such pressures, Hardwick also, as Harriet noted, ‘was never freer or more livel’ than after the divorce, when she was able to focus on her own creativity rather than on her feckless husband. Bolstered by a helpful introduction and timeline by poet and Barnard professor Hamilton (Corridor), this compulsively readable collection illuminates a tumultuous time in two celebrated writers’ lives.”
Pagan Virtues by Stephen Dunn
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Pagan Virtues: “In this 19th book, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Dunn (Different Hours) offers up the soul of a mature, solitary man who appreciates company, but who finds that love is, ultimately, ‘a better way to be alone.’ The humble pagan virtues he upholds may be less flashy than religious ones, but they provide many ‘options,’ such as ‘to uphold the beautiful// by renouncing the pretty.’ Moving from instructions to his eulogist (‘for accuracy you might say/ I often stopped,/ that I rarely went as far as I dreamed’) to the disenchantments of success, he advises the lucky to ‘try to settle in,/ take your place, however undeserved,/ among the fortunate.’ The book’s center is the luxurious pit of ‘The Mrs. Cavendish Poems,’ a sequence that moves through an affair with an unsettled, run-on address to the eponymous lady, plumbing the solipsism of its sorrow: ‘the sea doesn’t want to be bothered today,/ it merely wishes to behave like a lake / reflect back a face it believes is its own… / it would also like to change / its salty ways, but like you, / Mrs. Cavendish, it can’t.’ Intimations of illness and age are carried forward with small steps of irony and courage in Dunn’s latest, moving work.”